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How to Succeed by Really Trying

When it comes to making it across the pond, British rockers have adopted the American work ethic. A U.S. label doesn't hurt, either.

January 06, 2002|PHIL SUTCLIFFE

LONDON — Although, since the Beatles, we British music fans have often affected insouciant confidence in the superiority of our taste over the rest of the world's--and particularly America's--regardless of crude measures such as sales and chart positions, we experienced a Damascene moment in the late '90s.

It was when the Billboard 200 album chart revealed that the only British entrant younger than 50 was classical-pop ingenue Charlotte Church. "Oh, crikey!" we said.

Well, of course, Radiohead boosted morale as "The Bends" and "OK Computer" showed that the poor Britsucker could still get an even break. And the younger crowd of managers, rivals on the home front, started to talk among themselves about the problems and possibilities of tackling that almost mythic task, "breaking America."

One such alliance, between Ian McAndrew, co-manager of Craig David and Travis, and Phil Harvey, manager of Coldplay, sprang up early last summer at a cricket match, lovers of stereotypes will be pleased to hear. While Pakistan pulverized England on the greensward, the managers talked greenbacks. They've been in touch regularly ever since, McAndrew says.

Dido's manager, Peter Leak, plugged into the conversation too. Then, just before Christmas, it was Starsailor's people on the blower, seeking handy hints about how to launch the U.K.'s latest "sensitive rock" candidate in America (the album comes out Tuesday--see review, Page 66--and the band opens for the Charlatans UK on Friday at the Palace in Hollywood).

"Although it's fun working in the States, you do get lonely, so it's good to be able to share what we learn," McAndrew says.

Their consensus is that a succession of British artists failed through unwillingness to invest time and money in touring the U.S.

Meanwhile, for their part, the American arms of multinational majors had little incentive to promote acts signed in other countries because, if they did make a profit, most of it had to be "repatriated" within the corporation--and kudos would leak away along with the cash.

But now the sharper U.K. managers and artists--realistic of attitude, all old colonial arrogance cauterized--have increased their chances by reviving the venerable tradition of hard work. And trying a new business strategy too.

The perspiration aspect is simply getting back on the road. David Gray showed the way when his "White Ladder" album, now a million-seller, broke through in 2000 after 11 American tours.

McAndrew's Travis, now promoting its third album, "The Invisible Band," completed its fifth and sixth U.S. jaunts last year. The band may return again in May before starting work on its next record.

Multimillion-sellers worldwide in recent years, the Scots pronounce themselves satisfied that although "The Invisible Band" has sold only 300,000 in America, their live following is such that they have packed theaters in Utah or Minnesota, as well as the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. in October. "I think it's close to happening for them now," McAndrew says.

Last year, Coldplay, a fellow purveyor of melodious melancholy, took the same workmanlike approach, but moved faster--more than 500,000 sales for its debut, "Parachutes," thanks to airplay hit "Yellow."

If that radio breakthrough was luck of the draw, McAndrew and company took Craig David's "Born to Do It" on the Dido route toward a debut platinum. They introduced the 20-year-old star of British R&B via personal appearances on radio and then TV, where he played acoustic spots with his guitarist, Fraser T. Smith.

Having earned some acceptance as a musicianly singer-songwriter, he follows up with a 19-date full-band U.S. tour later this month (his West Hollywood House of Blues shows Feb. 18-19 sold out in an hour). A fanatical writer on his laptop in planes and hotel rooms, he aims to have another album out in the autumn.

But given that the most resolute toil can still be scuppered by a record company's fiscal politics, more British managements are steering their charges to sign directly with an American company to ensure that its attention is not distracted by resentful thoughts of profits dispatched abroad.

Setting the pattern, Dido and David had indie-label contracts in the U.K., then, went with Arista and Atlantic, respectively, in the U.S. Touted British newcomers the Music is following that pattern. Discovered by the Verve's label Hut in the U.K., it has just signed to Capitol for America.

The year-ago hopes that U.K. music in America might emerge from the years of milling confusion that followed Oasis-led Britpop were at least partly fulfilled.

New U.K. music is still developing pretty well.

Singer-songwriter qualities remain in the ascendant, whether flaunted by rock bands (nu-prog tendencies manifested by Muse, Elbow) or quieter, more hip-hop-inflected folkie types (Turin Brakes, Ed Harcourt).

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